The tomato you put on your sandwich, the soy isoflavones you take as a dietary supplement, and the corn oil you cook with all may be genetically altered.
Currently, no law mandates the labeling of genetically altered foods, also called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods. GMOs have been integrated into the U.S. food supply without much public concern, largely because the American media has ignored the issue. Since the 1960s, the biotechnology industry has spent billions of dollars altering the DNA of plants in an effort to increase the quality, quantity, and pesticide manageability of its crops. The result is that an extensive range of genetically engineered products are in our food supply today.
Europeans avoid GMO products, and the European Union is now fighting against U.S. GMO exports—particularly milk and beef from livestock that has been treated with hormones. Because this could hurt agribusiness, the U.S. government is concerned with public acceptance of these products.
Arguments against GMOs
The most widespread application of genetic engineering in agriculture involves inserting a gene that allows crops to self-produce a “natural” insecticide, or makes crops resistant to a specific type of herbicide so that farmers can kill weeds without harming crops.
In a July speech before the National Press Club, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman focused on consumer acceptance of GMO products—downplaying the health, safety, and environmental concerns of biotechnical medical researchers and scientists who argue that there isn’t enough information about the long-term effects of these altered organisms.
In his speech, Glickman claimed that genetic engineering will increase yields, reduce pesticide pollution, and help feed the hungry in developing nations. But according to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, lack of food supply is the number one misconception regarding world hunger. Current global food production levels are high enough to supply every human with 3,000 calories a day, the institute reports. It instead blames poverty and accessibility for world hunger.
Additionally, July USDA figures revealed that GMO crops did not show increased yields or decreased pesticide use. The USDA studied the performance of modified cotton, maize, and soybeans from 1997 and 1998 and found that in seven of twelve regions, farmers using modified crops used the same amounts of pesticides as farmers using nongenetically modified crops. Also, in twelve of eighteen regions, genetically modified crops produced no greater yields than nonmodified crops.
Genetic engineering is sometimes touted as environmentally friendly. But pollen from genetically engineered crops can be transferred to cultivated and wild relatives up to a mile away. This threatens the future of organic crops. Herbicide resistance genes can pass from GE crops to weedy relatives, necessitating development of more herbicides. In addition, huge areas of genetically identical crops will influence the evolution of local pests, wildlife, and the whole ecology.
Other arguments for GMOs are that they are just like natural foods or that the process is simply an extension of traditional crossbreeding. But genetic engineering transfers genes between species that could never be crossbred. Crossbreeding lets nature manage the delicate activity of combining the DNA of the parents to form the DNA of the child. But no natural mechanism exists for getting insect DNA into potatoes or flounder DNA into tomatoes.
GMOs and supplements
The first dietary supplement products labeled as free of genetic modifications have been released. This marks a breakthrough for consumers who want choice. Citizens For Health applauds those companies who choose nongenetically modified raw materials and we hope to see more supplements—and more foods—labeled this way in the future. But it’s expensive to use only non-GMO ingredients; small natural health companies are challenged because they can’t put enough demand on the raw materials market to get non-GMO ingredients at competitive prices. Like products with organically grown ingredients, non-GMO products come at a premium.
And so, along with other food industries, the natural products industry is struggling with the GMO issue. Should suppliers pay a premium for non-GMO ingredients? Will supplement consumers accept higher product prices for certified non-GMO products? The answers to these questions will ultimately be determined by the consumers and their support of companies that are now going the extra mile to include non-GMO ingredients.
Susan Haeger is president and CEO of Citizens For Health, a nonprofit, grassroots, advocacy organization based in Boulder, Colorado.
To find out more about genetically modified foods in the United States and abroad, contact Citizens For Health at (800) 357-2211, or on the Internet at www.citizens.org.